Insight and analysis on the data center space from industry thought leaders.

Four Important Considerations When Selecting Fire Protection for Your Data Center

Beyond fire protection, today’s systems offer benefits that contribute to sustainability and business continuity.

Fire sprinkler system in a data center
Kseniia Zatevakhina / Alamy

Data centers play an increasingly critical role in powering our modern world. As technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), the internet of things (IoT), and cloud computing rise to prominence for both businesses and consumers, the need for vast stores of data and computing power is fueling explosive demand for data centers. Accommodating this growth will take significant investment into new digital infrastructure, but it also requires securing the infrastructure we already have. 

Fire protection is a key factor in safeguarding the critical information and computing resources housed in data centers. Fire can cause irreparable damage to servers, potentially leading to catastrophic losses in data like banking transactions, health records, or intellectual property. Data centers require fire protection for the safety of people and property like any other building, but the need for data continuity and the consequences of data loss must be considered when choosing a fire protection solution. 

Understanding today’s fire suppression technologies and how they work can make it easier to spec the most suitable solution. It can also help businesses realize benefits that extend beyond fire protection, supporting goals like sustainability and improving business continuity. Here, we’ll look at how the latest technologies can support the unique needs of data centers. 

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Reduce Water Use and Potential Water Damage With Water Mist Systems

As the name suggests, water mist systems discharge a fine mist to extinguish and prevent fire growth. These systems use 80% less water than traditional fire sprinkler systems, which makes them ideal for large data centers looking to better manage water usage, whether to meet sustainability goals or to compensate for limited water infrastructure. Low-pressure water mist systems use potable water with no added chemicals, further reducing the environmental impact. They can also share the potable water supply with sprinkler systems located within the building. This can provide significant space and cost savings compared to high-pressure systems, which require a dedicated water supply. 

Water mist systems are often the most economical option for very large mission-critical data centers. The system pumps have a relatively small footprint, and these systems can be simpler to operate compared to other options. 

Due to the small size of mist droplets and the latest low-flow capabilities, the potential water damage to a data hall is reduced. Still, it’s critical that data racks are exposed to the least amount of water possible while still effectively suppressing fire. Typical water mist systems discharge 50 liters per sprinkler head, while leading low-flow water mist systems discharge only 24 liters per nozzle (the system’s equivalent to a sprinkler head). These nozzles also use local activation, meaning water is only discharged on the affected areas, helping to keep the data center operational. 

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When selecting a water mist system, it’s important to look for the lowest flow per nozzle to minimize overall water in the data hall. FM Approval is also important, ensuring you have an Approved system specifically for protecting data centers. Data center operators should also choose pre-action systems, which keep water out of the pipes until activated. 

Protect the Most Sensitive Equipment With Gas Suppression Systems and Acoustic Nozzles

Instead of water, these clean agent fire suppression systems use gaseous agents to quickly extinguish fires before flames break out. These systems are ideal for critical data centers where fast extinguishment is required to minimize risk to operations or loss of equipment and data.  

When clean agent fire suppression systems are discharged, they do not cause damage to data racks and leave no harmful residues in the space. In this way, these systems can maximize data center uptime, reduce cleanup, and help keep data safe.

It should be noted that when gaseous systems discharge, there’s a very high airflow rate that can produce sound. High levels of sound can cause HDD disc read/write failures, resulting in potential data loss. To best protect data, it’s necessary that gaseous systems are equipped with acoustic nozzles, which attenuate sound. When selecting an acoustic solution, look for a partner who can provide a solution with room acoustic calculations that have been third-party verified. 

Proactively Protect Lithium-Ion Batteries With Risk Prevention Systems    

Data racks are not the only equipment in data centers that require protection. Many data centers have backup energy sources on-site. Traditionally, these have been generators or uninterrupted power supply (UPS) systems that use lead-acid batteries. But recently, many facilities have transitioned to lithium-ion batteries.

Lithium-ion batteries are a cost-effective energy storage solution, but they require different fire protection than generators and data racks. Unfortunately, this is an often-overlooked fact. Lithium-ion batteries can become a fire risk if prevention systems are not properly installed or maintained. Improper use can result in thermal runaway, a hazardous chemical reaction in a battery cell that can rapidly spread to adjacent cells. As the reaction spreads, the cells generate heat and smoke, increasing the potential for a fire to ignite. It is crucial to have early-warning detection to identify a battery failure before it happens and disconnect that battery.

Lithium-ion risk prevention systems monitor and mitigate battery failure before it poses a fire hazard. In the earliest stages of battery failure, flammable gases vent from cells. Lithium-ion risk prevention systems offer monitoring and reference sensors that continuously check battery racks for the presence of these off-gases. If off-gas is detected, the sensors communicate with the battery management system to shut down the affected battery racks before thermal runaway can occur. 

A fire risk assessment should be completed any time there’s a change to the data center structure, such as changing the backup energy system. A risk assessment can determine if the fire protection system needs to be upgraded or modified. For example, NFPA 855 Standard for Installation of Stationary Energy Storage Systems (ESS) provides guidance on proper sprinkler system selection. This standard considers factors such as the maximum stored energy of the ESS units, the design density of the sprinkler system and the overall area of the room being protected. With many technical factors involved, it’s crucial to work with experts who can take all this into account and provide knowledgeable guidance. 

Use Economical Sprinkler Solutions for Server-Free Areas    

Sprinkler systems are a cost-effective solution for quickly and effectively extinguishing fires. But, if used in a data hall, racks will be exposed to significant amounts of water that can cause damage. These systems can discharge roughly 80 liters of water from each sprinkler head per minute, making them more suitable for areas away from computers. However, some cloud data centers that work with less sensitive data that’s replicated across several sites may prioritize protecting people and the building over protecting data. In these cases, sprinklers offer an economical solution. 

Double interlock pre-action sprinkler systems are an excellent choice for such applications and have an added layer of protection (vs. single interlock) to avoid inadvertent water damage. Water is stored in a reservoir and isn’t released into the system piping until two events occur: 

  1. The detection system needs to be activated 

  2. One or more sprinklers must operate

Sprinkler systems usually have a place within all types of data center facilities. They can be especially useful to help protect areas outside computer storage rooms, such as offices, break rooms and restrooms. Each data center will need to weigh the risks and determine which areas of their facility are best suited for these cost-effective solutions.

Complete Your Data Center Fire Protection System With the Right Partner

When it comes to protecting data centers and the critical computing resources within, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Every data center will have areas with different fire hazards and needs. It is important to understand what is being protected in each area to make the most effective decisions about data center fire protection. 

Each fire protection solution has its own advantages and drawbacks. And even though a fire suppression system may save a data center from fire, it could still pose a risk to the data being stored. Working with a fire protection partner who truly understands the unique goals and needs of data centers is the surest way to arrive at the best possible solution. The right partner will be able to offer a full portfolio of fire protection technologies that can address specific needs found throughout the data center. 

Mitigating fire risk in a complex business doesn’t need to be scary. With the right technology and expertise from an experienced partner, data centers can be assured they’re equipped with the best possible solution to keep their business moving forward. 

Tim Broughton is global product manager, engineered systems at Johnson Controls. He brings 29 years of fire protection business experience to his role, during which time he's been instrumental in acquisitions and global product rollouts. He graduated from Brunel University with a BSc (hons) in Industrial Design.

Dirk Laibach has over 30 years of varied global experience in the fire suppression and detection industry, including 23 years in Water Mist. He’s held positions of increasing responsibility with Siemens, KIDDE, FOGTEC Fire Protection, Marioff, and currently as Senior Product Manager for Water Mist at Johnsons Controls. Through his involvement and membership in a number of trade associations, codes and standards organizations (CEN), and approval authorities (like VdS, FM) in Europe and the USA. He also has extensive relationships within the industry and AHJ bodies. Dirk holds a degree in electrical engineering (Dipl.-Ing.) from the University of Applied Sciences Düsseldorf, Germany, and is a VdS-certified engineer for Water Mist Fire Suppression Systems.

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